Wisdom from the Masters for the Care and Maintenance of the Soul
The changes that occur during grief, as identified by Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, introduce a method of understanding and managing emotional responses that can apply to all situations.
Elizabeth Kübler-Ross (1926-2004), medical doctor, psychiatrist, lecturer, and author, became internationally renowned for her study of the terminally ill and their needs.
She wrote over twenty books on death and related subjects. Her most well-known work, “On Death and Dying” (1969), introduces the grieving process associated with the terminally ill and their survivors.
An emotional curve represents what happens from the time an emotional response begins until it dissipates. Ordinarily, emotions develop similarly, rising and falling along a linear curve.
The diagram below illustrates the Kübler-Ross stages of grief as a series of emotional curves.
The chart doesn’t imply that the emotions at each stage last for identical periods, or that overlapping doesn’t occur. The continuous curves do, however, provide a tool for understanding and managing emotional responses. We should see each new emotion as rising, falling, then giving way to the next stage.
Emotional responses divide into two groups: Positive and negative. Positive emotions such as love and joy are pleasant and desirable responses to situations, while negative emotions like fear and anger have distressing effects. But we need both positive and negative emotions as they help us survive, thrive, and avoid dangers.
We do well to sustain situations that yield positive emotional responses. However, for our mental, physical, and spiritual well-being, we usually should take action to ease the causes of negative feelings. Visualizing the emotional curve provides one method for managing emotional responses that fall into the negative category.
The Scriptures have much to say about the necessity, purpose, and management of emotions.
The Apostle Paul writes in Ephesians 4:26, “Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger.” Paul acknowledges that humans become angry. He doesn’t advocate eliminating anger in our lives. Instead, he advises his readers to manage this emotion by allowing it to dissolve before sundown. A curve that rises and falls illustrates fear as a managed emotion.
King David’s anger directed at his enemies escalated into a call for revenge. “Let burning flames come down on them: let them be put into the fire, and into deep waters, so that they may not get up again” (Psalm 140:10). His anger reaches a boiling point but doesn’t stay there. At its apex, David remembered God, who does not fail to intervene and protect the oppressed.
“I am certain that the Lord will take care of the cause of the poor, and of the rights of those who are troubled” (Psalm 140:12).
David also exemplifies the emotional curve of grief on the occasion of his son Absalom’s death. Second Samuel 19:1-2 records the concern of those close to David for his welfare. “Behold, the king is weeping and mourning for Absalom … the king is grieving for his son.”
The tormented King vents his grief in one of the most heart-rending moments in the Old Testament. “O my son Absalom, O Absalom, my son, my son!” (2 Samuel 19:4).
But David doesn’t prolong the pinnacle of this painful emotional curve. With the help and prompting of his advisors, the grief begins to dissipate. The pain and sense of loss remain, but the crippling agony slowly burns itself out, and “The king arose and took his seat in the gate” (2 Samuel 19:8).
Often one overhears well-meaning friends and acquaintances advising a person experiencing emotional turmoil to, “Just let it go.” A favorite expression among Christians is, “Let it go and let God,” or “Just turn it over to God.”
Such counsel may help the bystanders, but not the person working their way through an emotional trauma. Some may confuse letting it go with suppressing the emotion. And doing so only invites its reemergence at an inopportune time.
Allowing emotions to run their course—letting it out—provides a healthy method of working through difficult situations. “Be angry,” Paul writes, but don’t stay angry. Letting it out makes resolution much more probable than holding it in.
Now that doesn’t mean going about venting our feelings at every turn. But it is healthy and helpful to allow emotions to emerge at stressful moments in life. And we learn from David that the outflow of deep emotions can bring one closer to God. One cannot overemphasize the need to rely on spiritual resources for managing emotional responses.
Anger, fear, jealousy, sadness, euphoria, and so forth are normal human emotional responses, but unmanaged, they may become abnormal. Visualizing an emotion as a rising and falling curve helps to understand and manage what we’re feeling. Applying the Kübler-Ross stages of grief to all emotional curves looks like this.
Here we see emotions unfolding as a curve on a timeline. The curve begins with a trigger that initiates a response and ends with its resolution. The same trigger can lead to different emotional reactions. For instance, public speaking may be euphoric for one person and frightful for another.
Trouble with the emotional curve arises primarily from two circumstances. Lingering at the peak (sustaining) or lingering at the trough (suppressing).
Visualize an emotional curve as an ocean wave. Wind-driven waves drive the surface water and the waves build into swells that become stronger and stronger until reaching maximum intensity. Then the wave breaks, spends its energy and dissipates. Watch the wave rising and falling in this film clip, and imagine that it represents your worry, anger, disgust, fear, or whatever.
An auditory picture may also represent the emotional curve. Classical composers fill their works with pronounced rising and falling levels of intensity. Listening to a piece such as the following excerpt from Grofé’s Cloudburst in “The Grand Canyon Suite” provides visualization of the swelling and fall-off of emotional responses.
Did you hear the strings moving down the scale as the piece decrescendos to a peaceful resolution? Emotions escalate and deescalate in much the same manner.
Psalm 107:23-30 describes a storm at sea that might depict the rise and fall of volatile emotions. A stormy wind blows over the water creating boisterous waves that appear to “mount up to the heaven.” The souls of those aboard the ship melt because of the trouble, and they are at their wits’ end.
The storm grows to a raging climax, and the sailors remember the Lord. They pray, and the storm subsides. Then gladness replaces fear as they arrive safely at their destination. Try playing the Grofé piece in the background while reading the storm segment from Psalm 107. Managed fear rises and falls along an emotional curve just as a storm builds and finally blows over.
Although negative emotions serve a purpose, trouble with the curve emerges when one dwells too long at the crest of the reaction. Managing emotional responses allows one to work through unpleasant feelings to a healthy resolution. And one must not overlook spiritual assets such as prayer, reading, and meditation for resolving necessary but uncomfortable feelings, like the stages of grief described by Elizabeth Kübler-Ross.
A few days ago, I faced a rather unpleasant procedure as a preparation for radiation therapy. Anxiety grew as I waited for the doctor to enter the room. Then I remembered the curve. I also remembered God, and said, “O.K. Lord, time for this wave of anxiety to crest, break, and fall like the ocean wave.” And it did. I was in good spirits when the doctor arrived, and the procedure went without a hitch.
Everyone feels sad, worried, or upset from time to time. But prolonged emotional responses that disrupt life may indicate the need for professional counseling or psychiatric therapy. Without treatment, these problems may intensify. They can also cause or aggravate other physical and emotional health problems.
But for an otherwise emotionally healthy individual, the visualization approach to managing emotional responses may provide a successful resolution to those occasional flare-ups.
Proverbs 16:32 reads, “Controlling one’s emotions (is better) than capturing a city.” Imagine for a moment all the mighty conquerors such as Alexander, Julius Caesar, or Napoleon, who captured great cities. Yet, the most insignificant mortals who manage their emotions demonstrate more power than them all.